The Colorado Avalanche have been working through the natural progression of an NHL franchise. After the glory years of the late '90s and early '00s it has been a difficult process watching the decline and rebirth of the Avs. Colorado's decline was hastened by the lockout and the institution of the salary cap, but it was inevitable. Even the hated Red Wings, long cited as the model of consistent excellence in the NHL (propped up by fortuitous 3rd, 5th, and 6th round picks), are showing their age and appear to be on the decline. The Los Angeles Kings, once an afterthought in the Western Conference have completed their rebuild and now stand atop the league. Well-managed teams seem to get through the decline and rebuild fairly quickly, spending much of their time qualifying for the playoffs and even contending for the cup. Others never seem to quite get there.
There are a few identifiable states that a franchise must pass on their way to greatness and from there to irrelevance. These are:
All Blowed Up
- Players - Rookies and ELCs are common with a few veterans for leadership. Top prospects are rushed to the NHL before they are really ready.
- Contracts - ELCs and first RFA contracts keep costs low. A few mid-priced veterans are kept to reach the salary floor.
- Playoffs - It's rumored they exist, not a realistic possibility.
- Examples - EDM, NYI
- Players - A core of young talent begins to emerge. Additional young talent is added through free agency and trades to supplement the home-grown core. Older veterans are jettisoned in favor of emerging youth.
- Contracts - Core players get their first RFA contract. Salary floor is still in sight, but no longer threatening.
- Playoffs - Battling for 8th spot in late years of Rebuilding phase.
- Examples - COL, CAR
- Players - Core players have taken a clear leadership role. Majority of key positions are held down by younger players, but good prospects are being held in minors or Juniors for seasoning. Remaining holes in the roster are filled through free agency with veterans.
- Contracts - Core players are on 2nd RFA contract or first UFA. Salary cap is finally in sight, but not threatening.
- Playoffs are a near certainty, and exit prior to the 2rd round is a disappointment.
- Examples - STL, NYR
- Players - Core players are in the prime of their careers. Depth is provided by a blend of past-prime players and youngsters. Prospect pool is deep and ready.
- Contracts - Core players are on UFA-class contracts. Salary cap has come into play.
- Playoffs - Conference finals are the minimum playoff expectation.
- Examples - LAK, PIT
- Players - Core players are in their 30's and making big bucks. Depth is maintained by trades of prospects and picks for veterans.
- Contracts - Salary cap is in play.
- Playoffs - Playoffs are a near certainty, but clearing the 2nd round is a bonus.
- Examples - DET, SJS, coming soon VAN.
- Players - Core players are in their mid-30's and still making big bucks. Prospect pool is almost non-existent having been traded away in an attempt to stay in the playoff hunt.
- Contracts - Team is still close to the salary cap
- Playoffs - Team is just good enough to miss out on a playoff berth in the final weeks of the season.
- Examples - CAL, TBL, coming soon DET
Having few assets of interest to other teams, the franchise on Death's Door has a choice. Continue expensive lingering in hopes of reaching the post-season, or blow it up and start over.
Through combinations of bad luck and management incompetence, some franchises get stuck in various stages. For instance, CBJ and ATL/WIN have managed to flop back and forth between All Blowed Up and Rebuilding, almost since their inception. Calgary has been camped on Death's Door for several seasons, and they appear to be content to remain there for at least another. Other teams manage to skip all the good stages and jump from Rebuilding to Death's door (MTL, TOR).
With some luck the Avs are a season away from Contending in the Western Conference, and are being built to remain competitive for many years before their inevitable decline and rebirth. In this way, all franchises are Phoenix (with the possible exception of Phoenix which may be going down in flames).